Glued to The Weather Channel While the World Burns
By Paul Rogat Loeb
Following the weather is beginning to feel like revisiting the Biblical plagues. Tornadoes rip through Missouri, Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma—even Massachusetts. A million acres burn in Texas wildfires. The Army Corps of Engineers floods 135,000 acres of farmland and three million acres of bayou country to save Memphis and New Orleans. Earlier in the past year, a 2,000-mile storm dumped near-record snow from Texas to Maine, a fifth of Pakistan flooded, fires made Moscow’s air nearly unbreathable, and drought devastated China’s wheat crop. You’d think we’d suspect something’s grievously wrong.
But media coverage rarely connects the unfolding cataclysms with the global climate change that fuels them. We can’t guarantee that any specific disaster is caused by our warming atmosphere. The links are delayed and diffuse. But considered together, the escalating floods, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes fit all the predicted models. So do the extreme snowfalls and ice storms, as our heated atmosphere carries more water vapor. So why deem them isolated acts of God—instead of urgent warnings to change our course?
Scientists are more certain than ever, from the National Academy of Science and its counterparts in every other country to such “radical groups” as the American Chemical Society and American Statistical Society. But the media has buried their voices, giving near-equal “point/counterpoint” credence to a handful of deniers promoted by Exxon, the coal companies and the Koch brothers. Fox News’s managing editor even prohibited any reporting on global climate change that didn’t immediately then question the overwhelming scientific consensus. The escalating disasters dominate the news, but stripped of context. We’re given no perspective to reflect on their likely root causes.
Meanwhile, leading Republicans who once acknowledged the need to act, like Tim Pawlenty, disavow their previous stands like sinners begging forgiveness. A Tea Party Congress insists that they know better than do all the world’s scientists, dismissing decades of meticulous research as Ivory Tower elitism. Even Obama has fallen largely silent, as if he can’t afford an honest discussion.
As a result, too many Americans still don’t know what to believe. We can’t see, smell or taste the core emissions that create climate change. The industrial processes that create the crisis are so familiar we don’t even question them, no more than the air that we breathe. And if we’re not getting hammered by the weather, the world still seems normal, particularly on a lovely summer day. Plus we’re told that in the current economic crisis we can’t afford even to think about climate change or any other urgent environmental issue, even though the technologies that provide the necessary alternatives are precisely those our country will need to compete economically. Add in a culture of overload and distraction, and it’s easy to retreat into denial or self-defeating resignation. It’s as if half our population was diagnosed with life-threatening but treatable cancer—visited the world’s leading medical centers to confirm it--and then decided instead to heed forwarded emails that assure them that they can freely ignore the counsel of the doctors and simply do nothing.
The antidote to denial and the forces that promote it is courage. And as Egypt and Tunisia remind us, courage is contagious. We need to act and speak out in every conceivable way, and demand that our leaders do the same. We need to engage new allies, like religious evangelicals who’ve recently spoken out to defend “God’s creation,” from best-selling minister Rick Warren to highly conservative organizations like the Christian Coalition. We need to work with labor activists who link this ultimate issue with the renewal of American jobs. A recent BlueGreen Alliance conference, for instance, brought together leaders of major unions like the United Steel Workers, SEIU, Communications Workers of America, United Auto Workers, Laborers’ International, and American Federation of Teachers, with environmental groups like the Sierra Club, National Resource Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation and Union of Concerned Scientists, all speaking about the need to invest in an economy where both ordinary workers and the planet are respected. We need to join with these allies and others to voice our outrage at those risking our common future for greed. We need to find creative ways to do this until America’s political climate comes to grips with the changing climate of the earth. Here’s hoping the mounting disasters will finally teach us to turn off The Weather Channel and begin taking action.
Paul Loeb is the founder of the national nonpartisan Campus Election Engagement Project. His civic engagement books, like Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, have over three hundred thousand copies in print. A version of this article also ran in The Huffington Post.